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The Common Service: A Response to David Maxwell’s “Thoughts on the Future of Special Operations: A Return to the Roots - Adapted for the Future”[i]
Geoffrey Demarest and Ivan Welch
1947. Professor Maxwell’s article is good, but we think he danced around something, and it is not corralling foreigners. We arrive in late 2014 at a 1947-like institutional moment. By then, a separate US Air Force had been in the offing for years, and although many senior officers resisted its creation, birth of the new service was, to all who could see straight, inevitable. Timing of the birth is hard to precisely predict, but we are facing a similar inevitability, an inevitability (of a new uniformed armed service) that springs from a change in a basic input to classic military strategy, rather than from lesser variables like cultural acuity or political appropriateness. These latter attributes are advantageous and to be prized -- inputs to the larger truth -- but they inputs. Stated curtly, US SOF provides US strategic leaders a larger playing field, just the air corps did before 1947. It gives our national command authority a way to prudently reach into vast areas of the earth’s land surface; and do so independently of standard Army formations or commands. Yes, it is coarse of us to blurt this out, but that is what is happening. Some sage (Oliver Wendell Holmes, maybe?) advised that it can be unwise to play midwife to an idea yet in the womb of time. But the time is near; hot water and towels. Forgive us for mixing family metaphors, but following the last few years of conversation on the subject of conventional force/special force relations has been like listening surreptitiously to a conversation in a marriage counselor’s office. The couple is recanting their abiding love for one another, the memories and triumphs they share and all that they jointly own. They are promising to find work-arounds for their incompatibilities, make accommodations to each other’s needs, spend more time together, plan trips together. Meanwhile, the counselor is scribbling some notes to himself. He writes, “Well, this one’s about over. They should get a good lawyer and divvy-up the stuff.” And so we thought about why our institutional lives got to this point.
The Essence of Strategy. In the minds of competent leaders there exists a sense for what is known as the ‘culminating point’. We are not using the term to refer to the termination of something or when something grinds to a halt, but rather to that theoretical point in time and space beyond which it would be imprudent to proceed or to remain in place. It is not just any somewhere, but that place on the map or that moment when a unit will run out of water, or bullets, or into a much larger enemy force -- the bridge too far. The distance to the culminating point is an activity’s risk distance -- the practical, worldly, geographic translation of strategic prudence. It is the physical, temporal, earthly difference between a good idea and a bad one, success and failure. The prudent leader mixes his sense of the culminating point with the intuitively weighty and experientially painful truth that if he is to engage a foe who has greater strength at the point and time of engagement, then he had better have secured a route of withdrawal. This imperative of armed competition gets spun up by multiples, combinations and re-combinations, convoluted geographies, and changing temporal pace, but it is an imperative. A strategist in violent armed competition, or in competitions that might become armed and violent, has to remain cognizant and respectful of the practical correlations of force at distance.
Breadth of Continents. In the real world distance and strength are intimately related. The farther from home we might send our armed athletes (especially across land), the weaker they are likely be relative to what and who might confront them, and the harder for the rest of us to maintain their strength over time. It is the way of things -- what Kenneth Boulding called the loss of strength gradient. Classic principles advise that one not engage a stronger force, willfully or unwittingly, without having secured a route of withdrawal. We do not send our champions on one-way missions, except perhaps in the most extreme exceptions. For Americans, the planet’s military distances, measured as costs and risks, are round trips. Most of the world is far away, and the farthest points are on land, and so the upshot is transparent: In order to reach into the far-off portion of the continental world, certain ancient, obvious measures must be taken. A smaller force can travel on faster vehicles, more kinds of vehicles, can hide more easily and requires less logistic support. If it cannot hide completely, it can remain anonymous, discretely unassuming or at least un-annoying to the local sovereigns. It can move further faster and stay longer before reaching its culminating point or the culminating points of its bosses’ bosses. A small force, well built, can go where a larger force cannot. A simple proposition, it means that the extent of the earth within strategically prudent risk distance is far larger for that leader who can wield such small, well-built units. Or, restated over once again, the SOF world is a much larger world than is the world of conventional forces, especially for the application of landpower. Our SOF can go and stay where our regular formations cannot. The strategic world for our regular forces, seen in terms of strategic and political prudence, in light of classic strategic principles, respecting the immutable law of geography, is a much smaller world than it is for special units.[ii]
Map of the World. Further below we list some additional reasons why we will see the birth a new armed service. The first two, about the essence of strategy and its geographic translation, set at the heart of the matter. The rest is accessory. Rendered below are two maps of the world. They were precision crafted using PowerPoint and some images stolen off the intergoogle. World ‘A’ shows how we divide the globe into military domains. World ‘B’ is another way of considering the globe, but, unlike A, it is informed directly by the strategic/geographic imperatives of risk distances noted above and the nature of comparative institutional advantage. Map ‘B’ diagrams why, ultimately, will have a new armed service.
Whole of Government. Recognizing that the expression “whole of government” is quite popular within the SOF community (or at least said a lot), it too often begs the question as to whose government, and worse, it assumes because the US government has embarked somewhere militarily, that somehow all parts of the government are morally obliged to give a damn, much less participate. They are not. Many of us want our federal tree surgeons working on our federal trees, not helping abroad. Still, any aversion to the forced recruitment of government ‘partners’ aside, the various agencies should not work at cross purposes overseas, and their efforts are likely to be more effective when common goals are revealed, and perhaps when commitment of scarce resources is coordinated. That makes sense, but even our use of the passive voice in so saying betrays uncertainty as to who exactly should do all the coordinating and revealing. We have, as a result of many pressures natural and un-natural, evolved a byzantine set of institutional territories, the result being that people yell out ‘whole of government’ and ‘joint’ as if they are Rodney King-like pleadings that we all get along. One thing seems safe to assert: to whatever extent promotion of the ‘all-of-us-together’ ethos makes sense or does not make sense, the advantage provided by collaboration or synchronicity should not be forfeited to a tangle of time- and morale-killing meetings, negotiations, deals and misunderstandings.
Mish Mash of Authority and Permission. Much of a SOF campaign planner’s energies these days are wrapped up not in measuring relative strength, timing, logistics and the like, but rather in what surfaces in semi-doctrinal jargon as ‘authorities and permissions.’ A perennial form of grousing accompanies those terms, which is to say, with the time and social skill expended to negotiate the institutional barriers that the terms reflect. For efficient planning, if not the conduct of operations, authorities and permissions have become like barnacles on a ship’s hull. In the context of any given mission, at any given bureaucratic level, in any given office and in front of any given executive, commander, director, chief, secretary, supervisor or representative who has some sort of veto or influence (or who thinks he should), the expenditure of resource that SOF planners have to make is fascinating. At first it is fascinating, anyway, after which it is disturbing. It is disturbingly counterproductive, and for years now the emphasis seems to have been on training and educating SOF planners and leaders in the social skills, institutional legal knowledge, appropriate jargon, and Zen needed to successfully package and pitch an operation. In a sense, it is a beautiful thing. As libertarian would be glad to see that the application of American military force requires that a plan suffer passing through an elaborate and painful gauntlet of persons both knowledgeable and ignorant (regarding either the world or the essence of strategy). Looked at in greater detail, however, it appears that many parts of the authorities and permissions gauntlet have little to do with efficiency, effectiveness, validity of objectives, moral compass, or the contemplation of unintended consequences. Much of the gauntlet seems related to nothing better than protection of rice bowls and individual status. Furthermore, the only way to ameliorate the costs and vicissitudes of the authorities and permissions challenge is to simply make many of the current steps in that challenge moot -- to obviate them – to make them disappear.
Winning, Mens Rea, and Our Recurrent Crusade on Impunity. America interacts with the world in sundry ways, and even applying our purely military resources the ways include diplomatic, humanitarian, reconnaissance or training efforts, or a combination of these. The activities that most demand the prudent employment of coercive force, however, incline toward three categories of unacceptable foreign behavior: those that happened in the past, the on-going and the feared. Maybe the President of the United States orders the apprehension of perpetrators of some heinous act (a bombing, kidnapping, massacre); perhaps he orders various institutions of the federal government to suppress the slave or illicit drug trades, or perhaps he sets out to alleviate public fear of a dangerous behavior that has not yet occurred, such as the use of a nuclear weapon. At issue in all three tenses is a foreign entity that would enjoy impunity if we were to not respond. We engage our SOF when a foreign organization tries to get away with what to us is intolerable. The prevailing vision of our future operating environment predicts an increasing amount of such intolerable foreign behavior to which our country’s leaders may want to respond with coercive force, or with a broad range of elements of power that includes some amount of coercive force. In other words, we will observe increasingly more perpetrations for which some foreign entity is culpable, for which it seeks impunity, which we intend to negate. Accordingly, our country’s leadership will want the option of applying coercive force to deny impunity across an increasingly large global geographic extent. Nevertheless, our predictions regarding the future also feature increased expectations regarding the rule of law, and heightened public sensitivity to what might be considered disproportional application of force. We also anticipate decreasing overall material resources for our application of that force. In view of such a combination of trends, increasing recourse to SOF is predictable.
The Other Guys. The United States armed forces transformed in the past ten to fifteen years with a seemingly exponential expansion of special operating units. The rest of the world is imitating. We impelled a new game, a new challenge, a new threat; and are compelled to play, to meet the new challenge, and confront the new threat. Countering and defeating other peoples’ use of elite units is now necessarily a central mission for our elite units. Once the bomber was invented, someone tried to shoot them down with a smaller, faster plane; then someone tried to shoot that small plane down with even faster plane; and so it went. This next decade of SOF development will see a rise in SOF-on-SOF combat. We have to dominate that combat. Existential competition maybe. The conventional force structure will be hard-pressed to help.
SOF of the SOF and SOF on Patrol. It seems an historical continuity that whenever an elite force is established it is not long before a more elite force pops up, and then an even more elite force until, well, Team America, hell yeah. Meanwhile, especially when regular infantry or mechanized units are somewhere deployed, commanders decide to commit a SOF unit to do something of a relatively mundane nature, in spite of the fact that a regular combat unit is immediately available and supposedly able to do the job. This because the commander concludes, not without reason, that the SOF unit might do it better, and he wants to maximize the chances of success (or maybe he just wants to give the regular units a break and spread out the combat risks). Both these recurring phenomena -- the constant re-assertion of the elite, along with a tendency among conventional force commanders to use elite units as they would any other -- argue in favor of forming a separate service. A separate service would probably be in a better position to rationally orchestrate the invention, identities, preparation and employment of elite units. Hopefully, it would also economize and appropriately use elite units according to their unique contributions and comparative advantages. Some military leaders, raised within the confines of special operations, may be ill-prepared to properly employ regular combat formations. The panorama of warfare facing us, however, is one in which the requirement to employ regular formations is rare, and sufficient time will be available to deploy the correct mix of regular units and leaders if the need should arise. The opposite problem -- leaders who are not educated in unconventional warfare misemploying SOF is the recurrent and predictable error that the creation of a new service might alleviate.
Not Killing People. Our military is asked to do many things abroad, to include occupying territory, although we might not want to use the word occupation. We are often asked to help foreigners help us, which could, for instance, mean directly or indirectly deterring or suppressing insurgents, gangsters or separatists. Conversely, it could entail opposing a government. SOF planners are apparently more likely to remember that the most appropriate methods in a given case might include only a minor coercive ingredient. Our regular army is not optimally formed to accomplish missions that call for finely measured or sprinkled quantities of physical coercion. It is less well equipped to observe, analyze, and design an appropriate mix of measures in the context of most environments that feature such things as insurgents, revolutionaries, mafias, and so on.
Ambitions and the Cutting of the Pie. It is time to stop shrinking away from what bothers us. There are many officers in Army who see and feel the career stakes of this conversation. If a separate service were created in the midst of a tightening overall defense budget, the heavy (legacy, conventional, regular, combined arms maneuver?) portion of the Army would almost surely be slashed along with command structures which have so long been taken for granted as immutable, natural elements of the institutional environment. If those officers’ resumes are too tightly bound to the conventional structures, they might be seen as un-competitive and their prospects for promotion and senior rank could disappear.
Part of the American security budget pie, the ‘defense’ portion, has been seemingly forever divided into three more-or-less equal shares -- the Navy’s, the Army’s, and the Air Force’s. The overall security expenditure of the US government also includes the portion spent by the Intelligence Community, with the whole thing made more opaque by the rise of the Department of Homeland Security. How a new service would look in terms of funding share is probably to be reflected by the parts and pieces it would acquire, but one would suppose that the greatest divergence of budget into the new service would be suffered by ‘Big Army’.
What’s in a Name? We are not stuck on ‘The Common Service’ as a name for the new service. It is just a suggestion and here is why we like it: The word service will help underline its autonomy. The word common plays to the preference of Special Forces folk to cultivate an attitude of quiet professionalism. That is as it should be, especially since the advantage in risk distances owned by Special Forces is greatly due to discretion, small footprint, political inoffensiveness, and even deniability. The adjective also subsumes the ideas of ‘jointness’ and ‘interagency’ so that those boring terms might never again have to be inserted perfunctorily into briefings. Another term, ‘unconventional warfare’ is heard often these days, with its meaning apparently undergoing changes. Shooting people and blowing things up might remain a strong connotation, as opposed to Foreign Internal Defense or COIN, but it appears that unconventional warfare is being moved toward a denotation of support to insurgency. At the same time, ‘irregular warfare’ seems to be the prevailing umbrella term for all that is not nuclear war and state-on-state tank maneuver. Notice that whatever envisioned missions ‘unconventional’ and ‘irregular’ convey, the conventional force and the regular units are not seen to be doing them. To us, irregular warfare will be the central activity of The Common Service.
[i] David Maxwell, “Thoughts on the Future of Special Operations: A Return to the Roots - Adapted for the Future,” Small Wars Journal, October 31, 2013.
[ii] Joint Publication 1-02 Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, defines strategy as, ‘A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. (JP 3-0)’.